By Chris Biggs
Nepal has always been shrouded in a certain mystique - at least to me. As a country that didn’t open its borders to the outside world until about 65 years ago, the little I knew about Nepal as a child was based on National Geographic photos of the intimidating Mount Everest, and from listening to my old cassette tape of Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) singing, “Kathmandu, I’ll soon be seeing you, And your strange bewildering time, Will hold me down.”
So, yeah, I was pretty pumped to visit Nepal. On the plane ride over I must’ve sung that song about a dozen times.
Once we got there, the country did not disappoint. In eight days - split fairly evenly between the capital Kathmandu and the trekker mecca Pokhara - we had it all. We ate, we explored, we adventured. We drank tea with generous locals, we did more climbing than we’d initially expected, and we got to know a place that’ll definitely be on our list of “must-return” countries.
Thinking about a trip to Nepal? Good decision. Here are seven activities that will help you make the most of any vacation to the country known colloquially as “The Roof of the World” for its soaring, majestic peaks.
Eat like a local (Kathmandu & Pokhara). As a man who likes his noodles, Nepal catered to my preferred diet (lots of vegetables, even more carbs). While many Nepalese restaurants actually feature a handful of Indian and Chinese dishes, a result of centuries of cultural exchange, there are two must-try Nepali dishes: momos (dumplings) and thukpa (wide-noodle soup). In Kathmandu, the place to go for both is the inexpensive, unassuming Yangling Restaurant in tourist-heavy Thamel, where a plate of 10 veggie momos will cost you just over $1. Similarly, in Pokhara, your go-to spot for Nepalese food should be Potala Restaurant (their potato and cheese momos were the best thing I ate in Nepal), which is owned and operated by a cute family with young children who run around, sing, and do their homework while you eat.
Hike, trek, and explore (Pokhara). While Kathmandu has its fair share of hills and hikes, the best outdoor options reside in Pokhara - at least in part because the air quality there is so far superior to that of Kathmandu (note: in Kathmandu, be prepared to use a bandana or surgical mask to cover your mouth outdoors for extended periods - and don’t be surprised to see that 40-50% of people, both locals and tourists, do the same). Serious trekkers often visit Pokhara for access to the extensive network of long, multi-day hikes on the Annapurna circuit, which can be booked through numerous tour companies and will range in price based on duration; some tours will even take you all the way to Mt. Everest Base Camp. If you’re not as interested in backpacking into higher-altitude zones, consider a few shorter hikes accessible from Pokhara, including the very rewarding, scenic climb to the World Peace Stupa right off Lake Fewa.
See the Himalayas at sunrise (Pokhara). For about $20 round-trip (although pricing varies based on your negotiating skills), you can get a taxi to drive you to Sarangkot at sunrise for a breathtaking dance of color and light across the Himalayan mountain range. You’ll need to depart Pokhara by 5:45 am, and after a 30-minute taxi ride, you’ll reach an area just short of a scenic overlook - expect another 20-25 minutes of walking (and a small entry fee, less than $1 per person).
Go paragliding (Pokhara). I’m no adrenaline junkie, but knowing that we were in Pokhara, one of the top sites for paragliding given the beauty of the surrounding landscape, Lori and I sucked up our nerves and took a flying leap into the unknown (literally). Book at least a day in advance with any of the travel companies in Pokhara (we went with Mountain Hawk, and the pilots were awesome); expect to pay about $70 per person (not including tip). You’ll be strapped in for a tandem flight with an experienced pilot, and you’ll spend 30 minutes over the mountain range, the hills of Sarangkot, and Lake Fewa. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Relax on Lake Fewa (Pokhara). Lake Fewa is a rich blue body of water that sits right next to the popular Lake Side neighborhood in Pokhara. From most hotels it’s a short (5-10 minute walk) over to the boat rental area, where you’ll pay $7-$8 for a 3-4 hour rental of a large canoe - likely with heavy wooden oars (a great shoulder workout!). You can also pay a few additional dollars for a driver if you’d like to avoid the manual labor. The boat is a great way to visit the World Peace Stupa (mentioned in #2 above), and to find it just look up “Fewa Lake Fishery Office” in Google Maps, and the rental location will be very close to that.
Visit the Monkey Temple (Kathmandu). Kathmandu’s Monkey Temple, known locally as Swayambhunath, is a UNESCO site set on a hill just west of the city. Walkable from Thamel and other neighborhoods (expect about 45-60 minutes, including the hike up 365 steps to the top of the temple), entrance to the site costs about $2 per person and gives you access to a beautiful, well-preserved spiritual site adorned in colorful prayer flags. As for the monkeys? Steer clear of those insane little devils; they’re cute from a distance but ready to bounce, bite, or swipe with the slightest of provocations.
Buy cashmere and hiking gear (Kathmandu). Walking the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu, it’s clear that the neighborhood specializes in two things: soft local cashmere (scarves, sweaters, and blankets), as well as well-made knock-offs of North Face gear. While the trekking gear can be found in dozens of shops and is generally the same price across each location, be especially wary when looking for cashmere, since the quality will vary significantly based on the outlet. Want to learn more about cashmere in a low-pressure environment that has an excellent reputation? Head to SK Handicraft in Thamel, the best-reviewed cashmere vendor on TripAdvisor, who we had a chance to sit down with at length (they’re an amazing family-owned business who also ship items overseas). Expect to pay $50-$80 for a large high-quality cashmere scarf - significantly less than in the U.S. or Europe.
Our trip to Nepal was incredibly memorable and something I’d recommend to anyone with an adventurous spirit. Was everything flawless? Of course not. The air quality in Kathmandu (mentioned earlier) left much to be desired, and the bus ride between Kathmandu and Pokhara (7 hours each way; about $13 round-trip per person - and bookable through any travel company) was rough, bumpy, and dirty.
That said, I’ve yet to take a trip to any country that was without a at least a few snags, and Nepal stood out for its unmatched natural beauty - coupled with the kindness of its people. Next time we visit, we’ll also build in enough time for a multi-day Annapurna trek, as well as a visit to Chitwan National Park.
Fair warning, Nepal - I’ll be seeing you again soon, so be sure to have plenty of veggie momos and hot thukpa waiting for me upon arrival.